Asheville City Council

Maurice Washington’s brother-in-law was gunned down, caught in a drug dealers’ crossfire, while walking outside the Shiloh Community Center five years ago. And Washington says drug pushers are still terrorizing that traditionally black neighborhood. He wants to know what city officials are doing about it.

That still-burgeoning drug problem was the chief concern aired by Shiloh residents when they met with Asheville City Council members on Feb. 29 (the last day of Black History Month). The meeting was scheduled as part of Council’s program of rotating community-outreach meetings intended to ensure that Council members remain connected to the neighborhoods they serve.

With about 100 community members in attendance, Shiloh residents told stories of drug dealers so brazen that they run into the streets and halt traffic — and so unafraid of police prosecution that they openly threaten and harass anyone who speaks out against their illicit activities. Often, say residents, these nimble dealers seem to vanish just before a patrol car rolls by.

“I work all day, and they sleep all day and stay up all night,” declared a fed-up Charlene Hall — who had her property vandalized two weeks ago, after making a complaint about drug peddlers to the Asheville Police Department. “My home is filled with weapons,” she added. “I thought I’d never have a gun in my home.”

Longtime resident Ella Harper says that not all the perpetrators’ activities take place at night, either, and she finds the “loud music with vulgar lyrics” — which seem to perpetually pound out of car stereos in the neighborhood — particularly bothersome. “They’re drug sellers, and I know they’re drug sellers,” she said. “They sit there every afternoon and sometimes in the morning, and you can’t watch television or listen to the radio because the ‘boom, boom, boom’ is coming in through the [windows and doors].”

Citizen complaints haven’t gone unnoticed by the APD, according to Lt. Walt Robertson, the district commander of an area that includes Shiloh (he also lives in the neighborhood). “My wife and other members of my church have to drive around here, and I fear for their lives,” Robertson told the audience.

The police, he revealed, are now making serious efforts to arrest drug dealers in Shiloh by putting more foot and bike patrols in the area between West Chapel and Caribou roads. “We have officers in battle dress, so we can chase [dealers] down,” he said. “If they climb the trees, we are going to climb the trees after them.”

Asheville Police Chief Will Annarino pointed out that the drug problem in Shiloh has been an ongoing battle for much of the past two decades. His department, he said, has made inroads into what he called the “tough issue” — but he admitted that the problem is far from solved. More recently, however, the APD has increased the number of plainclothes officers in the Shiloh community, and, as Annarino put it, the assigned officers have been “working fierce investigations and undercover buys.” Those efforts are beginning to pay off — with some significant arrests already made, including that of a Shiloh resident whom Annarino described as “the biggest cocaine dealer in Western Carolina.

“That individual is currently looking at two life sentences,” he emphasized.

Shiloh residents got behind a rallying cry from Robertson that they team up with the police to find solutions. “This is not a one-person job; we’ve got to work together,” Robertson said, citing the example of suspects who flee police by entering people’s homes: “Don’t give them a place to hide,” he warned.

“When I moved here seven years ago, it was really bad,” stated Billy Coxe, a local minister. “If we don’t stand up for our rights, we’ll be infested again.”

Mayor Leni Sitnick encouraged the solidarity and said that if Shiloh residents were interested, she’d be willing to pursue the issue in a special forum, similar to her popular Mayor’s Roundtable. “It’s time for this community and others in Asheville to go beyond the neighborhood-watch group and to get a dialogue together, to stem the tide of what you know is going on in your community that shouldn’t be going on,” she declared.

But Washington, a Shiloh resident for 16 years, challenged Sitnick, saying: “With all due respect, mayor, this problem is not in every community. It’s more or less a black-community problem.”

Washington suggested increasing the number of lights and foot patrols in and around the Shiloh baseball park, where much of the drug activity is centered. “It’s ugly, almost comical, when my relatives come down from Chicago. They’ve never seen another place where the drug dealers run out and stop cars,” he explained.

But drug dealing, although chief among citizens’ concerns, was not the only complaint Shiloh residents brought to Council.

Washington also voiced concern about the lack of youth activities in the community. “This is the largest black community in Western Carolina, and we don’t even have a swimming pool,” he pointed out. “There’s nothing for the kids to do, and no money is being allocated.”

City Manager Jim Westbrook emphasized that the city had recently renovated part of the Shiloh Community Center and built a small park next to it. Additional improvements (including a pool) had been planned, he revealed, but were pushed aside after the proposed Parks and Recreation bond issue failed last year.

Other residents spoke up about several auto-repair businesses, which they say operate illegally out of homeowners’ garages — filling the narrow streets with derelict vehicles and fouling the air with exhaust fumes.

Residents also demanded additional speed-abatement measures for Shiloh’s streets, where two local youths have already died this year in vehicle crashes. And community members asked city officials to do something about the large number of abandoned buildings in the neighborhood — which one person said make perfect havens for rats, snakes and drug dealers.

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